Social innovations are sometimes literally underfoot.
I came to the Netherlands a month ago to enjoy a sabbatical in the way it was designed: as a break (“the sabbath”) from the daily routines of teaching and service. For myself, this is a time for reflection, learning, and sharing this knowledge. The time apart has already seen the parts of myself in the cobblestones of the city.
Stolpersteine are literally “stumbling stones.” Heavy brass stones, set into the sidewalks and public paths, they mark the last known voluntary residences of those who became victims of the Nazis: Jews, Roma, Jehovah Witnesses, gays, disabled peoples, and political dissidents. They list their names, along with the known facts of their birth, deportation, and murder. They also mark the forced exile of survivors who fled to diasporas in Latin America and the Middle East.
Since the artist Gunter Demnig began the project in 2003, over 61,000 stolpersteine have been laid in 1200 locations in Europe. They involve a personal interaction of a resident who volunteers to research the lives of the people who lived in that place before. The resident verifies the facts for the stones, tries to contact surviving relatives for permissions, secures the permissions from the city and state to lay the memorial, and pays the artist 120-Euro. They host a public ceremony for the laying of the stones, which can take more than a year of work. Often schoolchildren are involved in these activities.
The art pieces are now the largest decentralized, participatory memorials in all of Europe. They involve a public pedagogy for reconciliation with the atrocities of the past. They support the work of artists in the public sphere. Much like Paper Monuments in New Orleans, they create a public dialogue around who owns history in our cities, towns, and our dwelling spaces.
Importantly, stolpersteine are set in the ground. You must bow before it to see them, and bend down to read them. They are rooted to the soil. “And when it rains, as it often does in Holland, the stones glow, as if the ground is crying,” said Susanne Knittel, a professor of comparative literature at Utrecht University.
Speaking in a human rights conference that I attended, Knittel sparked my own imagination in thinking about what we represent as history in New Orleans.
Stolpersteine make us remember stumblingly. They take our personal feelings and transfer them to a permanent piece of stone. But the transference is not cathartic. Rather, we stumble from an unimaginable horror of the past to what we see in front of us: ordinary people sitting down to tea, the glow of a TV screen at night, children playing on the stoop. Those two visions are connected in this place and one now literally stands on the space of the other. The stones say never forget these connections, that the horrors are what our lives are built upon.
“They are not meant to make you feel comfortable,” said Anne Thomas, an international coordinator for the project in a broadcast lecture at the University of Kentucky.